A Guide To The Different Types Of Counselors

By Dylan Buckley

Updated May 27, 2020

Reviewer Rashonda Douthit , LCSW

An important consideration when deciding to participate in therapy is the type of mental health professional to consult. As the field of mental health grows, several different kinds of mental health professionals have emerged. This can be seen as both a positive and negative development. We have more options for mental health treatment than we have ever had before. And, with all of these options, it can make it difficult to understand the differences between these fields and for us to feel comfortable in the choice that we have made for our mental health treatment. While all clinical professionals meet similar clinical requirements for competency, each mental health profession has its own specific training.

Much like the list of doctors, which can be quite extensive, the list of different counselors and their specialties is quite long as well. We will cover a few major types in this article to give you an overview of who you may expect to see when seeking treatment.

Getting Help Is the Main Focus

Regardless of who you may need to see or what treatment may entail, the key thing that you should focus on is getting the help you need. For some, therapy may seem like an embarrassing or scary thing to pursue. In reality, therapy is one of the best tools that will help you tackle any issues in your life and give you access to the resources necessary to create lasting change. You are never alone in your journey, and there are plenty of individuals, both those who help and those who have received help, who are more than willing to assist you with your personal growth and healing.

Clinical Social Worker (CSW)

Clinical social workers receive advanced training in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness and other behavioral disorders. Clinical social workers have more clinical experience than professional social workers who do not have the clinical designation. Clinical social workers have completed the required master's program in social work (MSW), internship, and postgraduate supervision hours, along with passing a national exam.

Clinical social workers provide mental health services for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders in individuals, families, and groups. Their goal is to enhance and maintain their patients' physical, psychological, and social function. Clinical social workers must have a master's or doctorate degree in social work, with an emphasis on clinical experience. They must undergo a supervised clinical field internship and have at least 2 years of postgraduate supervised clinical social work employment.

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Clinical social workers are approved providers in most care plans and practice in many different settings.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

A mental health counselor is a counselor whose education is geared specifically toward clinical assessment, treatment, and psychotherapy. Mental health counselors receive training in mental illness, psychotherapy, and clinical intervention services. A licensed mental health counselor is required to complete a master's program, internship, and postgraduate supervision hours. They are also required to pass a licensing exam.

Clinical mental health counseling is a distinct profession with national standards for education, training, and clinical practice. Clinical mental health counselors are highly-skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.

Clinical mental health counselors offer a full range of services, including:

  • Assessment and diagnosis. What are the issues that you are presenting, and what is the recommended course of treatment?
  • Psychotherapy
  • Treatment planning and utilization review
  • Brief and solution-focused therapy
  • Alcoholism and substance abuse treatment
  • Psychoeducational and prevention programs
  • Crisis management

In today's environment, clinical mental health counselors are uniquely qualified to meet the challenges of providing high-quality care in a cost-effective manner. CMHCs have a foundational skill set that is distinct from those of other behavioral health disciplines. Their training in addressing the needs of the whole person and in wellness and prevention makes them well-situated to lead the effort in integrating health care. Graduate education and clinical training prepare clinical mental health counselors to provide a full range of services for individuals, couples, families, adolescents, and children. Licensure requirements for clinical mental health counselors are equivalent to those for clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists, two other disciplines that require a master's degree for independent status.

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A licensed clinical mental health counselor has met or exceeded the following professional qualifications:

  • Earned a master's degree in counseling or a closely related mental health discipline
  • Completed a minimum of two years post master's clinical work under the supervision of a licensed or certified mental health professional
  • Passed a state-developed or national licensure or certification examination

Whether you are dealing with a mental illness or issues navigating life, a professional mental health counselor can help you.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Marriage and family therapists focus on relationship, marital, and family problems related to mental health. Marriage and family therapists work with couples, parents, children, siblings, etc. They specialize in the family dynamic and tackle interpersonal issues and relationships. The training of a marriage and family therapist is much like that of other mental health professionals, requiring a master's level education in mental health and clinical supervision hours, which is then followed by a clinical exam.

Distinctive from a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) and a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT or MFT) is a rigorously trained mental health care professional who believes that a wide range of individual problems must be understood within the context of their family and social environments. Referred to as a Systems Therapist, Marriage and Family Therapists approach mental and emotional struggles. Whether the client is an individual, a couple, or a family, the goal is to change problematic, repetitive interactions that either contribute or continue to allow the cycle of repetitive problems.

A family orientation, coupled with rigorous training requirements, makes LMFTs uniquely qualified to provide mental health services. LMFTs are trained in various modes of therapy in order to prepare them to work with individuals, families, couples, and groups. The training of LMFTs includes live supervision by experienced LMFTs, which is unique among the mental health disciplines.

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Marriage and family therapy is often a cost-effective, short-term, and results-oriented form of treatment. Clients report high satisfaction with marriage and family therapists, experiencing significant improvements in interpersonal relationships, emotional well-being, and physical health.

Clinical Psychologist (Ph.D. or PsyD)

A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional who has received a doctoral degree. However, they cannot prescribe medication because their doctorate is not a medical degree. Like other mental health professionals, clinical psychologists are trained in the assessment, diagnosis, and therapeutic practice.

Psychiatrist (MD)

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have received advanced training and education in mental health and psychiatric disorders. Psychiatrists typically focus on medication management by prescribing psychotropic medication. Psychiatrists will meet with patients on a monthly basis, but most do not offer counseling services. Instead, you can expect to meet with a psychologist for your therapy and a psychiatrist for any medication. Psychiatrists can still provide traditional mental health treatment and talk therapy, and many do, but it is recommended that you speak with your psychiatrist directly if that is what you are seeking from your relationship with them.

What Should I Do to Prepare for Counseling and Mental Health Treatment?

Having the right knowledge about who to consult can be extremely beneficial, but it is only useful when you are prepared for counseling and come in ready to tackle your treatment. Here are some useful tips that will make it easier for you to enter a therapeutic relationship

Determine What Your Symptoms Are

Getting the right help starts with understanding what you are dealing with and who you should be looking for. If you are currently faced with stressful life situations that you may need guidance for, a general therapist or counselor will be able to guide you through your situations. If, however, you are dealing with a mental illness, you are going to need a specialist who is trained to handle your disorder. Learning more about your symptoms and what they mean for you can make it simpler to find the person who is best suitable for your needs.

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Be Open-Minded to Receiving Treatment

Therapy may not work for everyone, and one major factor that results in ineffective therapy is an unwillingness to accept treatment. If you are resistant to accepting the course of treatment that your therapist recommends, if you don't believe that therapy is going to work, or if you are unwilling to let your therapist explore some of the things that may be contributing to your mental illness, you are not going to get much out of therapy. Make sure to come with an open mind and allow yourself to welcome change and help rather than running from it.

Be Ready With Questions

Your therapist, like any other doctor, needs to be right for you in order to be the most effective. Before you attend therapy, you should have a list of questions prepared for your therapist. For example, you could ask them:

  • What are your qualifications and relevant experience?
  • How do you go about treating my specific disorder?
  • What types of clients have you had in the past with similar problems?
  • What does an average session look like?

Anything that you feel needs to be addressed during the first session should be written down and ready to go. This is also an opportune time to determine not only if your therapist is qualified to help you but is the right fit for you as well. Therapy is far more effective if the person you are receiving services from is an individual you can connect with and look forward to speaking with.

Reaching Out to Your Chosen Specialist

Do you feel like you're ready to start counseling? Armed with the tips and knowledge above, you can find the right person for you. You can access BetterHelp's network of licensed therapists from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). The network includes clinical psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and licensed counselors. They all possess at least three years and 2,000 hours of hands-on experience. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing different issues.

Counselor Reviews

"In only one month of therapy with Michal, I was able to discover a lot of aspects of myself. She was skillful in asking all the right questions and targeting the core issues and problems. The video sessions were very comforting, I felt connected immediately, and the conversations were well rounded, focused, and efficient. We managed to cover all of my main concerns. Moreover, Michal provided me with extra material, tools, and techniques to rely on when I am experiencing difficulties, and those techniques are already changing my everyday life. I feel very fortunate that I had the chance to work with Michal."

"Heather is very easy to talk to and very sincere. She patiently listened to me describe what I felt was such a multi-layered, complex situation that I feared I'd never be able to find my way out of. However, she was able to very quickly identify the underlying problem at the heart of it all. I feel less overwhelmed, more in control of my life & my relationships. I know that I can reach out to her if I find myself struggling, at any time between scheduled appointments. And I complete every appointment feeling less anxious, more hopeful for my future, & better able to accomplish the things I'd been too overwhelmed to do previously. I have told family members & friends about my satisfaction with BetterHelp, as a service that provides ease (being able to work with my counselor from home & not worrying I'll have to cancel an appointment if health issues flare) & is a wonderful value for the extremely reasonable monthly fee. My counselor checks in with me on an almost daily basis, which provides a reassurance just knowing she's there if I need her. I have seen a handful of counselors in the past, and they were all very kind, but I did not feel confident in their actual ability to help. This is not the case with Heather. I believe her treatment plan is on point, realistic, and will be effective. Most of all, I feel that I will be in a much better place mentally/emotionally and in my close relationships as a result of the work I am doing with Heather."

Conclusion

Being more aware of what therapy is, what it entails, and who is involved makes it easier for you to seek it out and get more out of it. If you want to learn about who you can expect to work with during the treatment process, use the guide above to break down the most common experts and what they specialize in. Once you have a better understanding of who you can go to, you can start strengthening your own mental health. Take the first step today.

FAQs

What do counselors do?  

Counselors give clients advice, guidance, and ways to help with their mental well-being and everything else they may encounter in life. Counseling is a wide field that can cover all challenges of life. Some counselors will help with a person’s well-being, while others will help a person learn all the skills needed to get a new career going.

Does therapy really work?  

For many people, therapy indeed works. Therapists have spent years learning about the human mind and how people behave, and they teach their clients techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is shown to be effective according to studies. 

However, therapy requires the client to listen and participate. If the client doesn’t put any work in, the therapy won’t be as effective. Therapy isn’t like going to the doctor and getting some medicine; it’s a process that requires participation, mindfulness, and willing to go places that may make the person seeking help uncomfortable.

When should I see a counselor?  

You should see a counselor if you’re having any problem in life that could be helped by talking to someone who is trained to help people. With seeing a counselor, it all depends on what you need to see them for. For example, people should seek a relationship counselor if their relationship is a cycle of unproductive arguments and lost love. You should seek a job counselor if you want a new job or want to transition to a new career. Some may seek a counselor if they’re new to an area and don’t know how to make friends.

If you’re contemplating seeing a counselor, that’s the first sign you should see one. You can always stop seeing them if you change your mind.

What is the difference between a counselor and a therapist? 

These two terms are used interchangeably, as there are indeed similarities. However, there are some differences. A therapist is usually a much more protected title, requiring a license. Protections can vary depending on what state you are in.

Therapy can also be longer, while counseling is seen as more short-term. However, this can depend from person to person.

What is difference between counselor and psychologist? 

A psychologist is a much more protected term, even more so than a therapist. A psychologist usually has a doctorate and is on a state board. Some psychologists may be professors, too. Psychologists can diagnose mental illness and provide care based on that.

What are the five stages of counseling?  

There are no set five stages, with many counselors working in their own way to help their clients. Some clients may have five stages that go like this:

  • Learning about the client and what they expect out of counseling.
  • Identifying one’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Making goals to improve one’s well-being.
  • Looking at the results so far.
  • Declaring the sessions a success, or something that needs to go back to the drawing board.

Do therapists hug their clients?  

Some therapists will have a no contact rule, while others may offer a hug or another display of care with permission. You may have to sign a slip of paper in order to get a hug. If you like touch, then make sure to discuss that with your therapist.

What are the benefits of a counselor?  

Counseling has many benefits, and they can differ from person to person, or depend on what type of counseling you’re seeking. Some potential benefits include:

  • Being able to improve one’s self-esteem and self-image.
  • Learning interpersonal skills that can help you grow as a person.
  • Identifying flaws you have, and working to improve them.
  • Better communication with your peers.
  • Being able to express yourself fully to others.
  • Possibly moving forward with life goals.

These are just some positive examples.

Can therapy have a negative effect?  

For most people, therapy has positive effects. It’s not a medicine, where you have the chance to feel side effects. However, some people have experienced side effects with therapy. For example, therapy can sometimes make your anxiety or depression worse. This especially applies if you have a therapist who is toxic or just not a good fit for the job. However, this should not discourage anyone from seeing a therapist, as it works for most.

How long does therapy take to work?  

The time that therapy starts working can depend on what you’re seeing a therapist for, what type of person you are, how often you do treatment, and many other factors as well. In general, therapy may take a few months for it to see full effectiveness, but you may see some signs of improvement even earlier.

What type of counselor gets paid the most?  

How much you make as a certain type of counselor can depend on many factors, such as where you live, how many clients you see, etc. However, the highest paid counselor tends to be a school counselor, with over $56K on average.

One reason why a school counselor gets paid a lot is because they do more than just talk to students. They make decisions about the school, and they are paid at a consistent rate.

Can physical therapists make six figures?  

Physical therapists make a median of about $87K, and the higher-income ones definitely make over six figures. How much you get paid can depend on where you live, how much you charge, and how many clients you see.

How do I start a career in psychology?  

A career in psychology can be a great way to live life, but it takes years of work. You must first earn a bachelor’s degree. Many people will pick a bachelor’s in psychology or a relevant field. Talking to a college counselor may help you find a career that’s for you.

Then, you go for the Masters. Which Masters degree you need can depend on what career you’re interested in. You may also need to have a doctorate in psychology, too.

During your education, make sure you put in all your energy towards your career. Besides doing to the homework, help others in need, get to know people, and get experience.

You may also need an internship as well. How long your internship lasts can depend on your state, but many states require at least two years. Afterward, you can get your license. What license requirements you’ll have to face can again depend on what state you live at, so check your requirements before pursuing it.

After that, you can build a career as a psychologist, be it getting hired by someone for their clinic or starting your own.

Can you be a counselor with a Masters in psychology?

Yes, having a Masters in psychology or in a relevant field is a great start. However, having a Masters isn’t a guarantee. You may need training and to prove your experience to become a successful counselor.


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